Aoife Brennan: Exploring Possibilities in Medicine & Patient Care

In the field of biotech some women leaders have notably been part of creating solutions that have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of patients. Our aim is to recognize their contributions and with this in mind, Insights Success has compiled its list of Successful Women making a difference in Biotech.

This list is incomplete without the inspiring work of Aoife M. Brennan, M.B., Ch.B., President and CEO of Synlogic, Inc., a Cambridge-based company working at the intersection of biology and engineering, pioneering the application of synthetic biology to design living therapeutics programmed to treat disease in new ways.

Below is the interview between Aoife M. Brennan and Insights Success, which highlights her vision for Synlogic and some of the life and leadership lessons she has learned over her career.

Can you give us a brief overview of your background and the evolution of your career towards being a recognized industry leader in biotech? 

I grew up in Ireland and was drawn to medicine at a young age. In school I was interested in science and I saw medicine as a way to help people while challenging myself. I attended Trinity College in Dublin for medical school and then went on to train in internal medicine and endocrinology. I always thought that a career combining clinical care and research would suit me, so after my fellowship training I came to the US for, what I thought at the time, was a one-year program to increase my competitiveness for an academic post back home. I am innately curious and drawn to new things, so once in Boston, there was a lifetime opportunity and the return to Ireland kept getting postponed. One such opportunity was to participate in the Harvard Scholars in Medical Science program where a semester spent at the Business School opened my mind to the business side of medicine. After that program finished and a recruiter called about a position with a biotech company in Cambridge, I went along out of curiosity. I never thought I would take the job and kept apologizing for wasting everyone’s time but after several visits, I found myself getting more and more interested. I immediately took to drug development. I loved the bridge from basic science to patient impact, and the fact that it seemed that there was a new challenge every day. My first job was with a small biotech in Cambridge, MA called Tolerx which no longer exists. Following three great years there, I joined Biogen which was much bigger at the time but still felt very much like a small biotech company. I initially started there in neurology but the company was going through rapid growth and there were more opportunities than there were medical directors so my role changed every six months. I eventually ended up as Vice President and Head of the Rare Disease Innovation Unit where we had programs in neurology and hematology, all focused on treating rare diseases. Rare disease development is both incredibly rewarding but also challenging – each disease requires creativity to meet the regulatory requirements for approval. My time at Biogen was a fantastic learning experience. However, when changes in the structure of that organization began to impact the programs that I was working on, namely the splitting off of Bioverativ, I began to look for another challenge. I met with the CEO of Synlogic who was recruiting a CMO, and, intrigued by the opportunity to build clinical programs from this novel platform, I joined the company in fall 2016. My career took another turn in mid-2018 when I was asked to step up to be Interim CEO, and a few months later became permanent CEO of Synlogic.

Pertaining to your leadership experience, how according to you, do the changes in technology utilization, volatility of the market and talent recognition, affect the overall development of any business/organization? 

Synlogic is based in Cambridge, MA so we are surrounded by academic institutions at the cutting edge of science and technology. Having said that, technology does not make a successful business unless it can solve a problem and someone is willing to pay for that solution. For companies in drug development, that requires understanding of patient needs, understanding the external environment and building a great team. The downside of being based in Cambridge is that there is a lot of competition for talent among small and mid-sized companies. At Synlogic, as well as making sure that our pay is competitive, we focus a lot on culture and development of team members. We hope that the team will see the opportunity to do something meaningful but also, to build their careers here.

What according to you are the vital attributes that a business leader should possess? 

I think it is critical, particularly in biotech, for leaders to have vision and focus on patients in need. Drug development is very difficult with a lot of failure. Without the motivation of ultimately making a big impact on the lives of patients, it is difficult to sustain the team through challenging times. I think another attribute is to have the ability and confidence to make critical decisions for the company and to create a safe space for the team to take risks and have big ambitions.

Considering the necessity of encouraging women to take up leadership positions, in what ways according to you, can this be achieved? 

I think there are some things that all leaders can do including encouraging and supporting women taking leadership roles through mentorship or sponsorship. The second way we can do better is to understand our biases. We need to understand how our biases influence our decisions and behaviors so that women and other minorities have more opportunity and a level playing field. For women in leadership roles, I think it is important to be visible and authentic so that others thinking about stepping forward can see you and identify.

What would be your advice for the aspiring/emerging business leaders? 

Understand what you don’t know and be humble enough to admit it, keep learning. Surround yourself with a talented team – don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you are.

How you have envisioned your future with regards to your career as well as your personal growth? 

I plan to keep learning and growing- that has driven my career decisions for the past 10 years.

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